by Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) My dad once told me how to cook a frog. You put it in a pot of cold water and very slowly heat it up until the frog is cooked. If you put it straight into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. You’ll be pleased to know this was an analogy. My father could barely make toast, let alone questionable French cuisine. He was talking about people in bad situations, why they stay in them when all evidence is to the contrary, and why they only wake up when it’s too late.

The coronavirus has had the opposite effect, and with some very interesting — and very human — consequences on our collective behaviour.

First, there was a sneeze

I work in London. I [used to] have a 90-minute commute every day to and from my offices, on a train, a tube and a bus. The first thing I started noticing around the beginning of February 2020 was that, if you sneezed on the train, people sidled out of the way. I sneezed a lot, obediently into a tissue every time, but nevertheless in threes. This subtle, yet pointed, sidling, which wasn’t a mean feat on a packed train to London Bridge, reminded me of another great London experience, the Black Death. “Atishoo atishoo, we all fall down”. It made me smile.

Londoners have a peculiar shared genetic history about certain things. Local history is full of reminders of the infamous plague. Every time another tube line is extended, a tranche of skeletal plague victims from innumerable mass graves of the seventeenth century is uncovered. It’s a grisly reality in these parts because, unfortunately, London is built on other London. The layers of memory mimic the layers of sediment under our modern footfalls.

The frog heats up

By mid-February, there was a lot more news. Thousands more confirmed cases. Country after country confirming its first case. Italy blew up and shut down. Cruise ships became plague ships. People were quietly self-isolating from offices when their partners returned from affected areas, healthy but cautious. Some countries were the hot frog, closing public institutions and banning everything else in corona hysteria; others were more conservative, preferring to react as necessity urged them, and copping a lot of criticism from the hot-frog countries.

The shift in human behaviour was fascinating to watch. Nobody held the handrail on the escalators. Hand-sanitiser brands suddenly developed nifty little carriers on backpacks. And yes, people wore masks, like they were ever going to help. Every conversation included coronavirus. The memes were ubiquitous. Facebook filled up with the stuff. But still there was very little actual panic around me. We went to work, we read the government guidance, we did what we were advised to do. We washed our happy-birthday hands several times a day, and most of us discovered how much we love to touch our faces.

And then the toilet paper ran

Nobody can say why it was toilet paper, even now. It will remain one of those wonderful human peculiarities that, in times of trouble and pressure, we prefer to save our arse, rather than our face. You can’t save both at the same time, after all. Panic is contagious. Sharon is buying 80 packs of two-ply. Why is Sharon doing that? What does Sharon know that I don’t? I must also buy them! Out of my way, Sharon!

I literally watched this happen in a Tesco down the road. Car-boot profiteering soon began on hand sanitiser and wet wipes, too, and — in the blink of an eye — the supermarket shelves were empty of everything except vegan options (there’s a whole other article in there) and toys.

This reveals an ugly truth about us. In times of crisis, altruism isn’t our natural instinct. We go straight back to primeval plague survival, when it’s everyone for themself. I have personal evidence of this, too. I choked on a train. A simple malfunction of my physiology(I swallowed down the wrong pipe) unleashed a coughing fit I had absolutely no control over. My whole carriage emptied in seconds amid angry looks. Had I been legitimately choking in a dying sort of way, there was nobody around to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. I was, well and truly, on my own.

Remote working is the new frog

Most of us have been sent home now, with our laptops and big screens and oodles of clever meeting software to negotiate. That online world we all love so much is now our whole world, bringing with it all the problems of not being allowed to be around other people.

This would be a fantastic time to do market research. Here in the UK, brands are responding in all kinds of interesting ways. Airbnb is taking the moral high ground and issuing full refunds because it’d rather “people don’t have to travel just to keep their money”. Makeup brands are urging us to be kind, and make sure we know they’re still delivering lip wash to your very door at the same insane prices. Online retailers are absolutely coining it. Small businesses are gasping. And we’re all negotiating a brave new world we weren’t particularly emotionally prepared for.

Maybe Greta Thunberg is right. That dour-looking youngster warned us that our feckless climate ways would come back to haunt us. Maybe this is how the world is giving us a snotklap in the right direction. China’s air is cleaner than it’s been since ancient times. Practically nobody is flying anywhere. And we’re all commuting less. However this turns out, what a time to be in!

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Wendy ShepherdWendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) spends part of her time developing and writing online short courses and accredited full-time programmes in the advertising and marketing environment. She’s also a very happy pharma writer. She’s planning on being a MarkLives columnist once a month and other BHAGS occupy the rest.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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